When Surnames Die

Over this long weekend, I dove back into genealogy with a frenzy. I expanded my tree in several horizontal directions, I cleaned up some of my files (but many more to go!), and I sent emails to potential “cousins” to see if we could find our common ancestor. Much of my work this weekend has pushed the surnames Campbell and McFarlin, and has springboarded off of DNA results suggesting possible matches.

DNA can be amazing, when you figure out the connection. One of the reasons I have done the DNA is to try and connect with other family members who may have information on my “brick walls” where I am stuck. One of the DNA tests you can do (if you are male) is a Y-DNA test. This test looks at the Y chromosome, passed from father to son in a direct line, and therefore allows you to trace back your surname. While it is handy for confirming surnames, it is not always helpful if you don’t know what surname you are looking for (such as if you are an adoptee).

Obviously, to do this test, you have to be a male descendant of the surname in question. Which leaves me out, but I have done Y-DNA tests on Campbell, Gans, and Douglas surnames from relatives. If I wanted to trace any other family surnames, I would have to find living male descendants. This can prove problematic, as surnames died out more often than I would have thought. I have found this twice in my recent research, once in the McFarlin lineage, once in the Sutton lineage.

First, we have the McFarlins, who may not be totally gone, but are very rare if they still exist. Keep in mind that I am only speaking of my particular “line”—the McFarland Clan is still going strong. My McFarlins started with Edward and Jane. After Edward died in Ireland, ALL of the children and Jane came to America. I wanted to see if I could find a living McFarlin, so I traced down.

Edward of Ireland had 3 sons: Robert, Edward A., and John. A promising start. Robert had no children, Edward A. had 3 sons, and John had 2 sons. So now we’ve got 5 carriers of that Y. Edward A.’s 3 sons broke the chain—William had no children, Edward A. Jr. had 3 girls, and John H. had one daughter. So that leaves the elder John’s 2 boys to carry the torch: John Robert and Henry Francis. John Robert had no children. Henry Francis had 2 sons who are possibly still living, and at least 3 grandchildren of unknown gender. If there are any McFarlin males out there, they are a literal rare breed.

The Suttons are completely gone in my line. Once again, the entire family came over to America and from there lost the surname. James Sutton had 4 sons in Ireland, one dying as a child. The remaining 3—Nicholas, John, and Patrick—all came to America. Nicholas had 2 sons, but one died in infancy. John had no children, although he raised Nicholas’ children after Nicholas died. Patrick had 2 sons. So in that generation, we have 3 Y-carriers. Nicholas’ son Gilbert had no children. Of Patrick’s 2 sons, James had 1 girl, and Nicholas had no children. In my Sutton line, the name went extinct in my grandmother’s generation.

While this dying of surnames stinks for Y-DNA purposes, it got me thinking about how this could play out in fiction. There is some pathos in the idea of a character being the last of a name (not necessarily the last of a lineage, as the women’s lines may have continued). If this was the last of a royal name or a founding father lineage, it could be sad—the end of an era. Perhaps this character would fight to pass the name on. Or perhaps, in a twist, he wants the name to die with him, because of some curse or evil deed in the past. It’s an interesting concept to play with.

Do family names play a role in your story?

WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien